Wake Up Gasping for Air

A good night's sleep is important for daily performance. However, many people have some issues with sleep and may actually wake up several times a night, with or without some other symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, etc. Do you find that you often wake up breathless? There are a number of reasons why this may occur, ranging from simple nasal congestion to a life threatening condition such as heart failure. Read on to find out what may be causing this symptom and what you can do to alleviate it.

Why Do You Wake Up Gasping for Air?

1. Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder whereby the airways are obstructed. The pause in breathing that can range from a few seconds to over a minute causes you to wake up gasping for air. Sleep apnea normally occurs when the tissue in the back of the throat relaxes, but may also be a result of excess tissue, weak airway muscles or the position of the jaw.

If you think you suffer from sleep apnea, you should undergo a sleep test performed by a sleep doctor. Additionally you may find it beneficial to sleep on the side, avoid alcohol, sleeping pills or any drugs that make you drowsy.

2. Heart Failure

Sudden waking up at night after a couple of hours of sleep with the feeling of anxiety, suffocation and breathlessness as well as a decreased exercise tolerance and swollen ankles is normally a result of heart failure. The condition referred to as paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea is usually relieved by sitting up for about half an hour and individuals are advised to seek the help of a specialist as the condition can be fatal if left untreated

3. Allergies and Post Nasal Drip

Nasal allergies and bad colds are often associated with nasal secretions travelling down the back of your throat when you lie down. In severe cases, these can lead to you to wake up gasping for air. While the condition is not life threating, it is sleep disruptive and you may want to consider taking antihistamines or a cold medication. In the long term it is best to have these medications prescribed by a doctor. Furthermore, an allergy test may help identify the cause of the reaction and you may be able to alleviate your symptoms by simply avoiding the allergen.

4. Asthma Attacks

An asthma attack occurs when the airways are blocked as a result of swelling of the lining and accumulation of thick mucus. This leads to a shortness of breath and chest tightness, symptoms that will cause you to wake up gasping for air if the attack occurs during your sleep. Asthma attacks should be managed with inhalers that can be prescribed by your physician after a few simple tests.

5. Acid Reflux

In patients with acid reflux, the acid from the stomach moves up to the throat. This is particularly worse when an individual is lying down. The acid causes the passages to swell in a reaction that is similar to an asthma attack. The patient, therefore, wakes up with shortness of breath. Acid reflux can be alleviated by simple lifestyle measures as well as a range of medications depending upon the severity of the condition. Over the counter remedies for acid reflux should only be used for up to two weeks without medical advice.

6. Stress

Stress is another contributing factor in people who complain that they wake up gasping for air. Stress can lead to severe panic or anxiety attacks that are associated with a number of symptoms such as sweating, feeling worried as well as waking up suddenly with heavy breathing. Individuals that suffer from stress and anxiety should try relaxation exercises as well as other ways to relax before bedtime. If the stress cannot be alleviated by simple lifestyle measures, it's recommended that they seek medical care and perhaps even try prescription anti-anxiety medications.

7. Spasm

Individuals with conditions such as Kennedy’s disease may suffer a sudden spasm in the throat that can leave you gasping for air. Additionally, the patient is unable to speak. The trick to resolving the spasm is not to gasp for air and trying to relax. Furthermore, there are exercises that you can do to improve airway control to make the condition better over time.

8. Pulmonary Edema

The accumulation of various fluids in the lungs, a condition known as pulmonary edema, can also be the cause of shortness of breath. Breathing requires even more effort when you are lying down and you may find that you wake up gasping for air. In severe cases individuals complain of a sensation of drowning, a condition known as acute pulmonary edema. This is considered a medical emergency and the patient should be seeking immediate medical attention.

Other Possible Conditions That Keep Waking You Up

There are other conditions that may cause you to wake up at night. These include:

  • Leg cramps, which could be caused by medications such as statins, too much fat in diet, pregnancy, over-exercising, poor circulation, etc.
  • Headache resulting from dehydration or "alarm-clock"
  • Confusion, which may indicate sleep apnea
  • Back pain caused by sleeping with improper mattress/pillows or arthritis
  • Nightmares due to excessive stress or medications such as beta-blocker and antidepressants
  • Sweating if you drink too close to bed or if you're taking antidepressants
  • Thirst if you sleep with your mouth open, but it may also indicate diabetes insipidis or undiagnosed diabetes
  • Bladder pressure
  • Age
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